EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect location for where a high concentration of the algae bloom had been found.
ST. PETERSBURG — Biologists have found high concentrations of toxic Red Tide algae near Fort De Soto Park, home to one of Pinellas County’s most popular beaches and tourist destinations.
The samples were collected about 5.8 miles west of Bunce’s Pass, which separates Fort De Soto from Shell Key Preserve. The pass, near the Sunshine Skyway bridge, is a favorite spot on its own for boaters, personal watercraft riders and anglers.
It’s the first sign that the lingering bloom, which has been going on since November, is presenting a threat to Pinellas County’s world-renowned beaches. However, a report from the Florida Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg noted no new algae-tainted samples from the beaches themselves.
Biologists from the Research Institute took water samples in the pass on Wednesday that turned out to have medium and high levels of the toxic algae in them, according to the report released late Friday.
Meanwhile, the Red Tide-related strandings of 49 bottlenose dolphins found on beaches from Pinellas down to Lee County between July and August has caught the attention of a federal agency.
Of those 49 found washed ashore, 48 were dead — far beyond the normal average of eight dolphin deaths in this area in the summer.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Friday that it was launching an official investigation into what it called an "unusual mortality event." Under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, an unusual mortality event is "a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response."
The federal agency will convene a group of experts to investigate the deaths.
Also this week the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission changed the rules on catching snook and redfish, two of Florida’s most prized inshore game fish, in the areas hardest hit by Red Tide. The rules now require anglers from the northernmost point of Anna Maria Island in Manatee County to Gordon Pass in Collier County to put their fish back after reeling them in.
All of these are signs of how hard the Southwest Florida coast has been hit by the algae bloom, which begins 10 to 40 miles offshore and then pushes in close to the coast. The current bloom has been labeled the worst in a decade.
Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.